How to Spot a Fake Review: 4 Clues Something’s Fishy

Language in bogus endorsements for hotels and meals can tip you off

  • Share
  • Read Later
John W Banagan

This week, the New York attorney general’s office fined a laser hair-removal service, a gentleman’s club and a charter bus company. Those unlikely bedfellows all committed the same sin, one that is unfortunately prevalent across the Internet: writing or buying fake reviews to help improve a business’s online reputation.

Nine out of ten shoppers say that reviews of products and services help determine where they spend their hard-earned cash. While the government and private companies are trying to curb so-called “astroturfing”—named for its imitation of a grassroots activity—they don’t have the resources to police the whole Internet. So the burden of spotting fake reviews inevitably falls on consumers themselves.

Luckily, academics are studying faux endorsements and uncovering clues about how the language in them may reveal that they’re bogus. Here are four tics to watch out for:

Using an abundance of personal pronouns. Psychologists have found that people typically tend to use fewer personal pronouns when they’re lying. The son doesn’t say, “Hey Mom, I broke your vase.” He invokes the passive, distances himself from the event and says, “Hey, that vase got broken.” But fake reviewers, Cornell researchers have found, are trying to convince the world that they did something they didn’t do—so they overcompensate in the opposite direction by using more first-person pronouns. That could be saying “I ate the ravioli” when a normal person would write, “The ravioli was just delectable.”

Being just plain over-the-top. Bing Liu, a computer scientist at the University of Illinois—Chicago, says that fake reviews tend to be “overdone” and emotional. Look for superlatives, descriptions of rooms or meals or rides that weren’t just good but the best thing that ever happened this side of the Mississippi! Fake reviews for a Nashville-based company that sells guitar-lesson DVDs, and was fined by the Federal Trade Commission, described the discs as “the undisputed #1 training product.” Because that’s how unbiased, normal people talk about things they purchase, of course.

Overusing certain keywords and avoiding others. Recommendation site Yelp uses a secret algorithm to filter out what researchers call “deceptive opinion spam.” Analyzing reviews that got the boot, University of Illinois’ Liu found that certain words cropped up more in fake reviews of hotels than real ones, such as us, price, stay, feel, nice, deal and comfort. For restaurants, words such as options, went, seat, helpful, overall, serve, and amount were common currency in false write-ups. Cornell communications professor Jeff Hancock points out that fake hotel reviews will often lack spatial detail that real ones will include.

Using figurative language in the wrong places. In a recent study published by the Journal of Consumer Research, marketing professors found that people tend to use figurative language when reviewing hedonic products, those purchased for pleasure, and more straightforward language when reviewing utilitarian products, those purchased because they’re stuff you need. If someone is writing up an opinion on a certain brand of chocolate truffles, for instance, a metaphor about them being “to die for” wouldn’t be out of line. But if someone says a bagless vacuum cleaner is a beacon in their cold, dark night, some bells should be going off.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

12 comments
FaithSchneider
FaithSchneider

I find reviews that have said at least one bad thing about the product, even minor things. If all of the reviews only say good things then I get reaaaallly suspicious

MDavey49
MDavey49

This is a good article, however it really doesn't offer any solutions to the problem. While this article provides some reasons of telling artificial reviews from real ones. I think people should look at the totality of the reviews, rather than solely focusing on one review at a time. That way by looking at the diversity of the sources you can come to an informed decision more quickly.

neilkelly80
neilkelly80

I've read loads of reviews on Trip Advisor to get a sense of what a hotel and certain place is like. Usually the law of averages kicks by the fifth "wonderful" or "terrible" there is! 

hummingbird06
hummingbird06

You know what I look for? Correct spelling and grammar! "Real people" who post reviews  use "it's" for the possessive, confuse their/there and wear/were, pepper their reviews with misspellings, and misuse words. When I see a series of purported "blog entries," as I did on a site for a weight-loss product, and all the entries are obviously written by someone who is well-versed in English, I know they are bogus.

Micarl
Micarl

'Normal' people would never say " ______ was just delectable." Ever.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Katy. I wonder how much government and private companies remember about the original astroturfing - the Tea Party-backed "protests" during the health care legislation ...or does everyone really wish for that part of recent history to go away and just leave us with a generic term for fake reviews? Then again, if you know a particular restaurant has bad food and crappy service and you read five-star reviews claiming, "This is the most totally AWESOME food I've ever had ...and teh waitress is soooooo HOT!!!!!", it's probably fake. You're welcome. Blame the Tea Party for that.

afterglo
afterglo

I have far more simple things I look for. For one thing, a large number of reviews of something is more reliable that the product or service with just a couple or a few. Padding a review section with 100 fake favorable reviews is far harder than just padding with 2 or 3. If some reviews seem too glowing, check the reviewer's other reviews, which can be done on Amazon, for example. If the reviewer is over the top positive about everything he reviews, he may be a reviewer for hire, or just someone with very low standards. I also tend to believe reviewers who have reviewed a variety of products (coffee, software, a bicycle, cat food, for example), especially if he isn't always writing positive reviews. Another approach goes like this, assuming a 5-star system. Ignore the 5, 2, and 1 star reviews. The 5's may have fake reviews. Ditto with the 1's. The 2's and 1's probably got a lemon, and while I understand their need to vent, their review may not mean much. Read the 3's and 4's. They're more likely to be honest and realistic because those reviews are very unlikely to be fakers or haters. 

DeeEnko
DeeEnko

How timely.  I just ran across a supposed an expert-independent-reports who reported on a specific weight loss product.  They reviewed several and listed them with a checklist comparing them all.  They also described the common ingredient in this review, how it worked, what their research methods were, etc.  They choose a top three to individually review in more detail.  It looked very professional and very credible until - I read the review of their number one pick and at the bottom of the review was a bullet to click on where you could order this product from their site.  However, they weren't so generous with the #2 and #3 picks.  They offered no way to order #2 or #3, or any except for #1 rated.  Talk about a conflict of interest!  I checked out the home site of this "ConsumerGuides" and it appeared to be a legit consumer advice site.  After seeing what I did, I would never consider them a reliable source for information on anything.  Crazy.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@deconstructiva you must really hate tea, all you ever do is slam the Tea party, You can not blame them for the worlds problems. You need to relax try to enjoy life play with the cat, who I know does not give a dam about the tea party.

gayla.chandler
gayla.chandler

i give 5's to almost everything, but my standards are in fact very high. it is rather that i carefully review items prior to purchasing them. very rarely have i been disappointed.